Film: Sleeper’s Wake
Director: Barry Berk
Starring: Jay Anstey, Lionel Newton, Deon Lotz, Stiaan Smith, Bayo Jwayi
Opens: 8 March 2013
Let’s remove a few preconceived notions before we start. Sleepers Wake is a South African-made film. It is written, directed, produced and acted in by South Africans, and it is set and shot entirely here in Mzansi. But unlike so many of the stories us “Saffas” like to tell each other, this is not unique-to-SA story that unfolds before us in the cinema. It doesn’t depend on our stereotypes, our archetypes or our history.
Sleeper’s Wake is fundamentally a universal story, about people recovering from grief, feeding off each other’s grief and trying to rediscover a path for themselves after loss. That these people are hanging out on our coast and occasionally having encounters with baboons is neither here nor there. This is one of the most refreshing aspects of this film for a jaded movie-goer like myself.
Sleeper’s opens to John (Lionel Newton) waking up from a coma, injured in the car accident that, we later discover, claimed the lives of his only child and wife. The mood is instantly set by a series of severe close ups and an almost complete lack of dialogue initally, and this might be where we lose those on the hunt for an action-by-the-second flick. Sleeper’s leaves you to wallow in the discomfort, much like John whose only solace is to be found at the bottom of a bottle.
The pace – and sense of unease – picks up again as John, who has ensconced himself in a relative’s chalet at the coast, encounters 17-year old Jackie (Jay Anstey). Jackie is noise and hurt to John’s silence and numbness. After a few false-starts in their relationship, we learn that Jackie too is dealing with loss. Her mother has been killed in a home invasion situation that saw Jackie almost raped, and her family brutalised. John finds himself increasingly drawn to the oft-naked, sexually aggressive Jackie, despite her age. And he soon finds himself inextricably linked to her uncomfortable family, and the small community in “Nature’s Cove”.
What do the filmmakers want you to know if you’re considering going to see this film? “The film is itself a statement,” says director Barry Berk. “Be open-minded,” agrees Jay. “Don’t expect it to be a common South African story. It’s a universal story, and that’s why I think it did so well overseas. It’s a story about people.”
Sleeper’s Wake was the only South African film invited to show at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival last year, and earned enthusiastic feedback from audiences. How much support this film can gain on its native turf remains to be seen. With all respect to Leon Schuster – his prolific output and his contribution to entrenching a culture of film-going in SA – this film serves to remind South Africans that we are capable of so much more than slapstick. We can, and should, expect world class movies from our film-makers.
Sleeper’s Wake is not for the faint-hearted. The eerie and atmospheric film, which delves fearlessly into how we deal with loss and shame, is a captivating, but harrowing watch. Brace yourself.
By Kate Ferreira